May 282010

Prism Comics, about LBGT issues in comics, has a great post on the impact of Apple’s content policies on comics in general and specifically LBGT themed comics. Even fairly mild stuff

“My problem with Apple banning [Jesus Hates Zombies] is simply this,” says Lindsay. “They allow the Marvel book Kick-Ass. How in God’s name is my book worse than Kick-Ass when it comes to content? The simple answer, it’s not. But because Kick-Ass is a Marvel book, it gets a pass.”

The experience of smaller publishers producing books with LGBT characters and situations also seems hard to reconcile with Murphey’s assessment of Apple’s guidelines.

Tom Bouden’s adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest was rejected as an iPad app for the App Store, again due to “materials that may be considered obscene, pornographic, or defamatory.” A handful of sexually suggestive images depicting men, some extremely mild, were specifically flagged as problematic in the 80-page graphic novel.

A few lessons from this situation:

1. Media and standards and platform, and especially who controls them, matter to content. Censorship (public- or private-sector) is often not so much about controlling content but about controlling the medium itself. When new forms of media appear, which put words and images in new places, censorship kicks into high gear. Walled-garden content systems like the iPhone/iPod/iPad or the Amazon Kindle are a reaction to the wide-open Internet, reassuring big media companies that they will retain control.

2. If you’re a big, established company, like Playboy or Sports Illustrated or Mavel comics, the standards for judging your content is different if you’re somebody publishing an indie comic off your laptop. Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition will net more revenue to Apple than some little swimsuit company’s illustrated catalog app. Money talks, “community standards” walks.

3. People will find a way. Even if your LBGT indie comic doesn’t get into the iVerse, it can still get into the iPhone via the Amazon Kindle app. The question, however, is how level will the playing field be. Amazon takes a 70% cut, while Apple takes a comparatively mild 30%.

4. It’s still censorship when non-government parties do it, and even worse in a way because there is no system of appeal or open standards. Apple and Amazon, being corporate entities, can do it purely by fiat.

5. That the violence of eroticized-yet-plausibly-deniable violence of Kick-Ass gets a pass and two men making out doesn’t speaks volumes about our culture’s twisted view of sex and violence.

6. Watch out for chilling effects and pre-emptive self-censorship.

I’ve often imagined an alternate history of American comics in which the Comics Code Authority of 1954 never happened, and the medium matured, gaining respect and credibility until it equaled film or television. It surely isn’t coincidence that the most heavily censored medium is also the one that struggled longest for critical respect.

May 172010

Gawker has an email exchange between Ryan Tate and Apple head honcho Steve Jobs that’s partially about the technical/business issue of why Flash won’t be allowed on the iPad, but also about the issue of porn on the net.


Yep, freedom from programs that steal your private data. Freedom from programs that trash your battery. Freedom from porn. Yep, freedom.

And you might care more about porn when you have kids…

Aha, I thought, here’s the nub of it. Jobs employs the old “won’t somebody think of the children” canard, situating the iPad in a purely domestic environment where children are central, and nothing that could potentially or purportedly harm them must be allowed it. As Walter Kendricks pointed out in The Secret Museum, censorship requires the idea of the “vulnerable person” who must be protected from the influence of pornography.

From a strictly business point of view, this attitude may hamstring the Apple iEcosystem. If the goal is to create a walled garden, people may simply not show up and go elsewhere because they like their porn, among other things.

Oct 222008

While reading about the Paul “Max Hardcore” Little and Extreme Associates trials, I came across other evidence of just how out of control American prosecution of obscenity is these days.

Strategically, going after Little is a brilliant way to rack up a victory. He’s male, he’s scary, he works in a visual medium (more arresting than print), he specializes in humiliation and other edgy issues, he performs in his own films, and even free speech and sex-positive advocates have a hard time defending him. He’s the stereotypical pornographer, a pre-packaged bogeyman ready to be ritually scapegoated in a purification drama.

Compare Little to Karen Fletcher. She is a 58-year-old agoraphobic woman who lives alone on disability. She was indicted on six charges of distributing obscene materials over the Internet. These were prose stories (no video or images) of children under 10 being molested and killed on a members-only web site. Fletcher plea bargained and got five years of probation and forfeiture of her computer.

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Jul 302007

Dark Horse Comics is planning to release John Norman’s Gor series in reprints, the first being an omnibus edition of the first three books. Note that this is not a comics adaptation, just a reprint.

JE Remy of the blog Die Wachen views this with some degree of alarm. He’s written three (1, 2, 3) postings urging the reader to contact Dark Horse and make them stop this.

Remy cites another blog posting as to why this is ethically justified and not censorship:

I start with the axiom that people should not do bad things. I assert that publishing a bad thing is itself a bad thing, because it provides the bad thing greater exposure and the opportunity to negatively influence people that it would not otherwise have. I assert that Gor is a bad thing, because it promotes a model for human sexuality and society that in reality would result in immense harm to many people. Finally, I assert that no circumstances mitigate the harm of its republication, because the work lacks historical significance and is of questionable artistic merit not counting its reprehensible sexual politics. Q.E.D.

The argument above says that Gor novels “negatively influence people” and “it promotes a model for human sexuality and society that in reality would result in immense harm to many people.” I disagree because it assumes that, because they read these books, they will do harm that they would not otherwise do. As I’ve argued before, people don’t need any encouragement to come up with sexual fantasies that aren’t nice and gentle Furthermore, it glosses over the distinction between fantasy and reality, or even the “reality” of some internet chat rooms and Second Life neighborhoods. Goreans are never going to be any more than a lunatic fringe with no influence over anybody who wasn’t predisposed anyway.

Another bloggers, Bellatrys, does a good job of laying to rest the Norman-apologist argument that the sexism, anti-modernism, etc. only really kicked in in the later books. Her thorough multi-part analysis proves that Norman was on the maledom-femsub track from the beginning, and if anything he just lost his inhibitions in the later books. (She also provides an overview of the series’ publishing history.)

My concern with Gor is not that it’s badly written (no argument here, but that’s never been a hanging offense), that it’s sexist (it certainly can be read that way, not to mention racist and classist), that it’s politically retrograde (no argument either), or even that it has inspired a cult following. My concern is that, what could have been a sub-parr, forgettable pulp fantasy series by a hack writer with some personal eccentricities somehow became something that people take so literally, including the author.

With Sade, one can argue that he was writing to shock and provoke and/or to indulge his own fantasies of revenge on the world, and none of his books were intended to be taken literally as philosophical arguments or designs for living, even by the author. With Gor, however, there is a subculture of people who view it as a deep philosophical truth, a vision of a true way of life in a fallen world.

Norman’s books are what happens when you distill the romantic primitivism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Edgar Rice Burroughs down to toxic levels of concentration. I recently read The Culture Cult by Roger Sandall, who says that the discipline of anthropology has been hijacked by neurotic bohemian malcontents (ever since Rousseau) who dream of living in a fantasy world of personal and sexual freedom instead of the conformity and colorlessness of modern civil society. These romantic worlds are located in the distant past, in Africa or the Australian outback or, in Norman’s case, on a duplicate Earth hidden on the other side of the sun.

Sandall’s book has many flaws, but it did get me thinking about what he called romantic primitivism. Dom/sub is based on slavery and feudalism, two real-world social systems that are antithetical to liberal democracy. Why do we practice such social customs voluntarily?

Because they mean something to us. My theory, going back to previous postings on Turner’s theory of initiation rituals, is that people have a need for initiation rituals, for the process of finding, entering and becoming a new social role, whether temporarily or permanently. The Gor novels function as that kind of initiation, both in the protagonist’s initiation into Gorean society and the endlessly repeated scenes of women being initiated into Gorean slavery. I’d argue that Norman is not so much obsessed with slave women as with free women becoming slaves.

The Gor texts themselves function as a medium for initiation, learning the ways of Norman’s intricately detailed (though highly implausible) world and sub-Nietzsche philosophy, and then joining the sub-sub-culture of Goreans.

JE Remy seems to view the Gor series in the same terms as, say, the white supremacist epic novel The Turner Diaries (said by some to be inspiration for Timothy McVeigh), and that it should be self-evident why Gor should not be published, in the same way that some random screed about Jews emasculating the white race through fluoridating water need not be published.

Bellatrys picks up this thread too:

I find fascinating the rabid insistence on all quarters that the only reasons for loathing the books are 1) “Political Correctness” and 2) not having read (with implicit “dared to) the books themselves, but only taking the liberal zampolit’s word for their badness. If you only gave them a chance, you’d see how beautiful and noble and wonderful and liberating they are! is the cry from the Gor fans.**

It seriously not only doesn’t occur to them, but is apparently outside their comprehension that anyone could have actually read the damned things and made up their minds about them on their own. That maybe we are at least moderately familiar with the pulp genre as a whole, and are capable of doing compare/contrast on our own – and maybe, just maybe, we can make the judgment as to whether the worldview presented as “normal” in Norman’s Counter-earth is dehumanizing and degrading to both women and men on our own, based on the primary texts…

I don’t think Gor is “a negative influence” on its readers, or the world in general, or at least no more so than many, many other books. As I’ve said before, I’m a very strong supporter of freedom of expression, and letter campaigns to publishers, even against books I find almost unreadable, make me nervous.

I also suspect that Remy’s efforts are in vain. Even if there are no more reprints, the untold copies lying in various used bookstores around the world (a cursory search on eBay for “gor norman” produced over 100 items) will still be there. And eventually people will start pirating them and putting the text files online. The tarn has left the barn, so to speak.

Simone de Beauvoir
wrote an essay in 1955 called “Must we burn Sade?” Perhaps there needs to be another essay, “Must we burn John Norman?”